Hancock Shaker Village © 2013 Jeff Ward

I make it a point to visit historical sites whenever possible. Being in a place, for me at least, often gives a feeling for others that have been there before me. Few places have felt as right to me as Hancock Shaker Village.

The place feels happy somehow, in contrast to other utopian sites like Oneida Community Mansion House. It’s not that Oneida feels bad, it simply feels strange in comparison. It’s hard to talk about without resorting to terms like “spirit” or “essence”. It’s as if the objects, commissioned or made by previous inhabitants, hold something of the character of their creators long after the possessor has turned to history.

It’s a common sentiment. Tool collectors are particularly prone to it; the concept of heirloom tools is based on the idea that these useful objects are more than simple artifacts, they somehow retain a connection with the users and objects that they have interacted with. The worst fate for an old handsaw is to get painted and hung on a wall as a mere decoration.

Reconstructions of old objects, though they don’t have the same aura, still provide a sort of genetic connection to previous modes of thought and being. The feeling of there being something else there, often hazy and receding into the distance even when you’re holding the object in your hand, persists at a guttural level even when to connection is only conceptual. Artifacts, at the root level, are concepts that have been made into facts.

The idea that Shaker objects feel right is hardly unique to me. When you’re working at a lathe or using a spokeshave to shape a curve on a Shaker reconstruction, you just know when the curve is right or wrong. There’s a correctness to the object when done right, as if there’s an essence you’re aiming at.

What deserves consideration is the origin of this feeling: does it strike a chord in the craftsperson or consumer, or is it the communication of some sort of deep historical feeling? I suspect it’s both. There is a paragraph in Marx’s notes on Mill that I quoted earlier that bears revisiting:

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt.

As a craftsperson, making an object objectifies individuality in that there is a specific character to the choices and selections that I have made which reflect my tastes and appetites, not to mention my level of skill and attention to detail. There’s an imperfection to human work, but that isn’t the center, really. It’s a question of what imperfections are tolerated or embraced— a matter of taste. That a craft object reflects a “power beyond all doubt” takes on layers of meaning when it is considered that craft is always embedded in tradition, reflecting not only individuality but tacit social agreements about what is desirable in an object.

Traditional objects reflect power as a social phenomenon, as Arendt has proposed, rather than simply a reflection of personal expression. What is clear here is that it isn’t about individual strength through expression, but rather participation in a social exchange, a participation in “another man’s essential nature” which typifies true power.

2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature.

Craftwork, i.e. the production of objects, can affirm common needs making them visible in the form products we surround ourselves with. Recognition of these needs is central, and Marx places the craftsperson in the role of mediator between individual and species.

3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognized and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love.

The basic thrust of this form of direct exchange (as opposed to exchanges mediated by money or the complexities of other intermediaries) is a solidly grounded polis. “Production as human beings” as contrasted with “production as productive instruments” has the character of a gift rather than a social transaction. Bondareff’s argument for the necessary character of individual bread labor was also married to a social commitment to provide bread for others who were unable to produce their own, as a gift commanded by Christian charity. Charity should also be factored into craft labor.

4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realized my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature. (Marx)

Certain objects seem to feel right, I think, because we see not only ourselves but rather a plausible way of life in them. It is a form of sociality that is tied to participants that are no longer present, except perhaps in spirit. But spirit is too weak a word for the sort of genetic connection that is possible within craft traditions.

These are objects I can use to feel a part of something larger than myself. These are artifacts that will shape me into the sort of person I want to be, simply by association. The material circumstances of my environment are not chance— they are a choice— driven by a desire to belong.

The acceptance of traditional artifacts is subject to the properties of memory. We hold the objects close, overcoming their uniqueness, using them as tokens where the face of the craftsman has long since worn away. We cannot know the true source, conflated from so many identities, lost with the distance of time.

Artifacts collect scars, they fade, they are repaired and repurposed. Only pedants insist on “authenticity” in artifacts. Most interpolate data as best they can, integrating the personal with artifacts as they become living material history.

Respect and Tradition

Vivian Howard Watching an episode of A Chef’s Life this morning brought into focus a lot of the reading and thinking I’ve been doing lately. Tradition comes up in a variety of forms. It can be discussions of what have become traditional styles (e.g. Arts and Crafts, Shaker, etc.) or it can be the matter of traditional working methods. There’s a lot of talk in woodworking publications and sites lately about getting past some of these “traditions” and into other more rewarding modes or periods for discussion. That’s all well and good, but what does it really mean to work with/within a tradition?

E.P. Thompson suggests that there were several varieties of medievalists at work in the Victorian era. Some were most interested in emulating the substance of gothic affectations, making objects/buildings that looked medieval on the surface while being totally unconcerned about how or why these objects existed. This is a shallow sort of fashion following; it exists in virtually every sort of endeavor you can name. Others, like Morris for example, were interested on the sociality of medieval workers: their methods of interacting with others inside or outside their trades, modes of exchange and manufacture, etc. more so than the actual products produced or exchanged.

It dawned on me this morning that the most obvious difference here is between respecting practice rather than product. This doesn’t mean that product doesn’t matter, far from it, but by achieving the ends desired by using similar or identical means we offer a greater degree of respect for those who produced the products that we admire or are influenced by.

The boredom I think that many (rightly) feel about styles that have become too commonplace (like Shaker or Arts and Crafts) results from too shallow of an exploration of the practices rather than products. I feel like I’ve hardly begun with both of these styles, mostly because it is so unclear just how they produce the mental effects they do. I feel a sense of peace and well-being when I’m at the Hancock Shaker Village that comes from proximity to not simply artifacts or things (I suspect much of what’s there are copies) but from a constellation of material evidence for a way of life that has long passed.

Which brings me back to A Chef’s Life.  I had never thought of meals as having a “theme” (beyond an ingredient or a regional cuisine) until I watched the pair of episodes in the second season where she cooks a luncheon to celebrate the women that matter most to her. Yes, it’s about regional North Carolina foods, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about respecting her mother, and grandmother by trying to reproduce not simply their flavors but their methods of making the foods she loves. The heartbreak, when she had to resort to restaurant methods for producing one of the dishes instead of the way her mother had always done it, is palpable. She was so afraid that it just wouldn’t be the same, and reading that if if it failed it wouldn’t have been the first time she failed.

But more than that, it was the moment that she revealed how hard it was to watch people reject the “Tom Thumb” dish meant to pay homage to her grandmother, by witnessing it travel half eaten or not sampled to the garbage can after the luncheon showed just how personal and heart rending the experience of sharing a tradition with people not ready to appreciate it can be.  It’s not so much about rejecting a product that doesn’t fit contemporary tastes as much as rejecting a culture that she labored mightily to share. It was a really moving moment for me, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it all day.

It’s easy to think we can improve upon the past, especially when it comes to improved technologies and materials. But to deny the simplicity and effectiveness of traditional practices disrespects those who came before us. Why are we so sure that our way will be better than the traditional methods? The ultimate respect we can pay to those who came before is often to simply reproduce not only their products,  but their methods— to do otherwise implies that we are somehow are better or smarter than they were. It’s easier for me to see that as disrespect now.

Shaker Side Tables

Shaker Side Tables
It took a long time to gather the courage to make these tables.

I first glued up and cut the tops of these tables from a nice wide curly cherry board over a year ago. I cut them to rough size, flattened them, etc. and then started trying to figure out the tapered legs. The legs scared the heck out of me. They are only 1 1/8″ square tapering down to 5/8″ at the foot. It seemed nearly impossible to cut mortises on such a small leg, and to keep them straight and true. I threw up my hands when I got overzealous squaring up the stock I had, reducing it to 1 1/16″. I went in search of more leg stock, both for the first table and for a second one. I must have bought $150 worth of boards that weren’t quite right (or so I thought at the time). I wandered away to work on other projects, over the fear of those tiny legs.

At that time, I hadn’t even visited any Shaker sites, or looked at any of their furniture in person. I picked out these tables, mostly because I needed something that would match the bookstand I built for the guest room (my first bookstand), and they looked very simpatico with the Stickley #72 magazine stand that I finished a bit before starting to work on these. That stand was really a traumatic project, mostly because I tapered the legs before doing the joinery (big mistake). It marked the beginning of my transition into hand tool work. I screwed up at least 4 sets of legs on that one before I got it right, so I was really gun shy. That’s probably why I tabled these tables for so long.

When I resumed, I decided to go ahead and use the 1 1/16″ legs I’d already milled (they’re on the table on the left) and make another set the right size for the second table. After seeing many Shaker tables at Hancock Village, I figured out that minor differences in measurements really don’t matter. If you measure the real pieces there, you’ll find a lot of variation among pieces that look pretty much the same. I also got a lathe for Christmas, so this provided a good opportunity to make knobs, and of course no two of those look exactly the same either. It wasn’t really about “compromising” it was about just relaxing my fears about somehow getting it wrong. It’s about spirit, rather than machining to precise specifications— after all, it’s supposed to be woodworking, not wood-machining.

The other fearful part of this table was making the drawers. I have made many rabbeted drawers before with power tools, but this time I wanted to do hand-cut dovetails like the originals. I’ve done lots of dovetailing before, but not half-blind dovetails. I was worried about the tiny edges splitting out. It turned out to be okay, and though they’re not the best and did involve a few small patches to fill gaps, they do work and they are authentic. Overall, I’m pretty happy with them.

My first attempts at half-blind dovetails.

Firewood box

Firewood Box

The temperature dropped down into the twenties today. I suppose I got the firewood box done just in time.

“In October of 1949, at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, I noticed the large windows between the paintings interested me more than the art exhibited. I made a drawing of the window and later in my studio I made what I considered my first object, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris. From then on, painting, as I had known it was finished for me. The new works were to be painting/objects, unsigned, anonymous. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom: there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there, alreadymade, and I could take from everything; it all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory with its broken and patched planes, lines of a roadmap, the shape of a scarf on a woman’s head, a fragment of Le Corbusier’s Swiss Pavilion, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street. It was all the same, anything goes. At that time I wrote: ‘Everything is beautiful but that which man tries intentionally to make beautiful.’ The work of an ordinary bricklayer is more valid than the artwork of all but a very few artists.”

– – Ellsworth Kelly (1974)

Excerpts from Ellsworth Kelly Matrix by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, published by Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2003.

Getting to work

Changing seasons
Old Chatham, NY, near the original Shaker Museum site

Fall always brings with it a certain sense of urgency, a need to get things in order before the snows begin. I put a coat of oil on the painted firewood box I finished before our final trip to Hancock for the season. No picture of it yet, but maybe I’ll take one tomorrow. Going to the Hancock Shaker Village to look at the furniture and interiors there has been better than reading a hundred books on the subject.

It’s the little things that matter— I made the firewood box (supposedly based on a Pleasant Hill Kentucky Shaker piece) from an article from Popular Woodworking. I noticed that when I compared it to the measured drawings I had of the original, the stock is thicker in the magazine plan (3/4 instead of 5/8). I know it was a concession based on easily available hardware store lumber. If I would have thought about it more, I would have followed the old measurements. I have a planer, it would have taken a few moments to take the boards down that 1/8 inch thinner. Now that I’ve seen the versions at Hancock, I really question both sources. The boxes at Hancock are smaller, not just in thickness but in the top compartment as well. I didn’t measure to check exactly how much, because I’d already pretty much completed the thing before I started looking closely.

There’s also a “flight of shelves” drawing I’ve been looking at in another Shaker book; the versions at Hancock (there are several) are all different, both in size and in construction details. I measured them, and it’s not just a matter of minor differences; it’s a big difference. Most of the Shaker pieces that interest me were never built for manufacture; they’re site specific for a given purpose. Plans are really only for general principles, I think, and cannot provide the real magic that radiates from their household products and furnishings. That takes more work. If I’d never gone over to Hancock, I don’t think I really would have understood that part.